The Great Lean Beef Conspiracy

I could just go a steak right now...

I could just go a steak right now...

I haven’t watched TV in about nine years, but if things haven’t changed much, various food interests periodically run campaigns advertising a certain meat that is in need of a popularity boost. When I was a boy it was lean beef. I never thought Australians could be accused of eating too little beef, but I remember a certain ad involving three men on a life raft fantasizing about steak. “I start with a beautifully lean oysterblade steak, seared and sealed on both sides…” Funny how that line is still embedded in my brain when the principles of integral calculus seem to have leaked out. Anyway, the ads always ended with the slogan “today’s steak. Can you think of anything better?” or “shouldn’t you lean towards beef?”

Well, yes and no.

See, I like steak, but it isn’t a health food. It never was, it never will be, no matter how lean it gets. And here’s the big thing: I was tricked. Lean steaks are no good. They simply aren’t. What they are is cheaper to produce. I was tricked by an ad campaign so that in the years that followed I deliberately sought out the leanest cuts of meat. I’m still pissed off about this.

Here in the States we have the USDA grading system to tell us exactly how awful is the steak we are buying. The ranking system works like this:

Prime: highest quality, lots and lots and lots of intramuscular fat, known as marbling. This isn’t the unchewable strip of gristle you trim from the steak, this is fat that melts at a low temperature and is the reason beef can be the most succulent thing on Earth (after unicorn). It is as far from lean as you can possibly get.

Choice: what you buy in a good supermarket. No marbling.

Select: the lowest commercial grade. It used be known as ‘good,’ in the same way that you used to be able to buy a ‘small’ shake at McDonalds.

Standard: the most charitable thing you can say about this grade is that it’s cheap.

Commercial: worse.

Utility: worse.

Cutter: worse.

Canner: worst.

This is marbled steak

This is marbled steak

Jeffrey Steingarten, the amazingly famous food writer for Vogue, informs me that there used to be four more grades on each end of this scale: that is to say, there was once a much higher classification than ‘prime.’ What happened? Just that no one raises beef of that quality anymore, because it isn’t economical. Sadly, your only chance at really good steak expired with the thirties. Kobe beef is pretty good. If you fed me on beer and massaged me with sake I’d probably taste okay too. I hate economics.

Until very recently, prime steak was only sold to high-end steakhouses. That is to say, you couldn’t buy it retail, except mail-order at a cost of several hundred dollars for a few pounds of meat. However, thanks to the global recession, beef farmers have had to unload their product on the common market. Now is your chance! Head to a gourmet supermarket and pick up a USDA certified prime rib eye right now!

This is lean steak. As though that's something to be proud of.

This is lean steak. As though that's something to be proud of.

Rib eye, no matter what anyone says, is the best cut of steak. It’s called Scotch fillet in Australia. Tenderloin (“eye fillet”) and New York strips are overrated. Tri-tips are pretty good, if they are Kobe-style and well marbled. But rib eye, hands down, wins the tenderness contest.

Probably the only real way to cook a steak is on a flame grill, but I don’t have one, so here is how to cook a steak on a stovetop:

Real Steak

Heat up some olive oil and butter in a cast iron pan. Yes, it needs to be cast iron, which gets really, really hot. Wait until everything is smoking and the fire alarm is going off, and toss in the steak.

Sear it one minute, no longer, and then flip it and sear the other side. It should be nice and charred on the outside and still cold and raw inside.

Take it out of the pan, take the pan off the heat, and let the steak rest for ten minutes on a plate. Season it with a few good grinds of salt and pepper.

Return the steak to the pan along with any juices that have leaked out in the resting period, and put the pan in a 250°F oven for about ten minutes.

To finish, reheat the pan to smoking and briefly sear the steak again. If it is too raw for your tastes, sear it a little longer. You will need to make little cuts into it to check its doneness, but don’t be fooled: it’s doner than it looks. In the words of P. J. O’Rourke, “just when you think it should cook a little longer, take it out.”

Good steak is wonderful by itself, but a good sauce can make it better still. Here is one my wife makes:

Wasabi-Cilantro Steak Sauce

1 ¼ cups white wine

2 Tb white wine vinegar

¼ cup diced shallots

1 Tb wasabi paste

1 Tb soy sauce

1 cup (yes, one whole stick) unsalted butter

¼ cup finely chopped cilantro

Combine wine, vinegar, and shallots. Reduce over low heat to 2 Tb (approx).

Strain out the shallots. My wife uses a martini shaker for this.

Add wasabi and soy and butter. Once all mixed and melted, add cilantro.

Extra! Extra!

My friend Rich D’Amato shared this story with me about the significance and rarity of really good steak. The restaurant he is referring to is one of the top steak houses in New York, the kind of if-you-have-to-ask-you-can’t-afford-it-and-anyway-we-have-a-Michelin-star joint I’ll never get to eat in. Take it away, Rich:

Back in the late eighties, Peter Luger In Brooklyn had a total lock on the best of the prime short loins in the NY market, which were the best in the U.S… I had a meat purveyor with whom I was doing at least 1.5 M a year in wholesale purchases for our restaurants. I said “Lou, get me one of them.” He said, “impossible ” We wound up having to bribe a security guard $100 at 4 am to just let us look over the short loins and select ONE before she ( the tyrant) arrived at the market to pick the best of the best. The entire industry was terrified of her! Once we asked her in the restaurant if she would give us a tour of the the kitchen as a professional courtesy. She said “No,” and walked away from our table. She has since softened. Your point is well taken. Get some well marbled prime now. It’s a whole lot easier.

Thanks, Rich!

11 comments to The Great Lean Beef Conspiracy

  • “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.”

    That’s the slogan I remember from growing up. I can hear the music, too! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7VvvAp-2v4o)

    I usually get steaks at restaurants rather that cooking it myself. I like it when it’s cooked by someone who knows what they’re doing, and I don’t! Your recipe does sound delicious.

  • Grass-Fed Beef is the way to go and ‘Nourishing Traditions’ by Sally Fallon supports beef as a healthy food. Read it!

  • Rachel Martin

    Sounds scruptious Dan. But am wondering if the beef you cook with came from a cow or bull that was grass fed, free to roam in pastures and be an animal until it was slaughtered, or.. was it shut in a little room all its life and fed corn. The benefit of eating beef in Australia is that it’s always the former, whereas most American (USA) meat is corn fed and lot raised. No matter what the taste was I guess I’d want to know the origin first. Aren’t considerations such as this critical in choosing what we can stomach?

  • You’d be proud of me. Virtually all my veggies, meat, cheese and eggs I buy at the local farmer’s market (it’s closed in winter though). When I feel like lashing out, I tend to buy a grass-fed prime. You’re right about the shocking state of US beef farming, but alternatives are coming onto the market.

  • JP

    Lean Beef is really good for making your own jerky.
    Less fat keeps it from going bad.

    other than that, lean beef is better than no beef

    But if one wishes for truly lean meat, stick with venison or rabbit.

  • Hedgie

    For the sauce, do you mean one *cup* or one *stick* of butter? A stick is only half a cup.

  • That’s a good point, Hedgie. The thing is, my wife and I like different amounts of sauce. She will tend to add more than me. By consensus we’ve decided on whatever looks good, about 1.5 sticks, but it doesn’t really matter that much, so long as the butter is unsalted – it just makes a different quantity of sauce.

  • yummmy……. thanks for your tips i’d love to follow u.anyway happy new year ~~~~~~~~~~~

  • Cast iron cookware is hands down the best. I used non-stick stuff for years, but a nice steak fried in a cast iron skillet is on a completely different level. Besides, you can buy a high quality skillet for under 80 dollars and it will last you a lifetime. The non-stick cr*p may last 4 years if you are very lucky. If you search the web a bit, you can often find a really good pan on sale. There are always some great offers on cast iron cookware listed on the cast iron pots website. Ok, that did it, now I’m hungry. I’m off to the kitchen to fry up some steak and eggs.

  • Hedgie

    I just wanted to say that I use these instructions every time I get a hankering for steak. I usually cook a week’s worth of food at a time, so steak is pretty infrequent but it comes out perfect every time with this method and the good meat from my co-op next door.

  • Thanks Hedgie! That’s good to hear. I think I’m going to work on my sous-vide technique next.